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God, Memes and Steel
April 8, 2009 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Jared Diamond on the Evolution of Religions. (SLYT)
posted by Artw (46 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is it because religious people lived with livestock?
posted by klangklangston at 8:56 AM on April 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's about time the memetics meme was taken out back and shot.
posted by daniel_charms at 8:58 AM on April 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


I am so very happy that multiple scientists are talking about this. Instead of "belief" being something that you "just do", it is becoming something explainable, which means that future superstitions have a harder time getting started.

Like, back in the day, charlatans could pretty easily con people into investing in perpetual motion machines. For that matter, not even charlatans--plenty of well-meaning, intelligent people spent their lives on that quest. Now that the Second Law is fairly well understood, perpetual motion machines are a niche market at best. (Blah blah blah obvious links to recent cases aside, my point stands.)

Similarly, once you can show why people hold irrational beliefs, especially about prime causation and animistic type stuff, maybe religions will become a niche market.
posted by DU at 9:11 AM on April 8, 2009


The difference between perpetual motion machines and religion is that even if the religion you believe in is demonstrably wrong, it can provide benefits - you might feel better about death, your social group might cohere better, etc. I doubt they'll ever be a niche market.
posted by echo target at 9:41 AM on April 8, 2009


Homeopathy apologists claim the same thing. Real medicine is still better.
posted by DU at 9:42 AM on April 8, 2009


DU: What's the real "religion", then?
posted by daniel_charms at 9:45 AM on April 8, 2009


Homeopathy apologists claim the same thing. Real medicine is still better.

Oh yes, let's all take happy medicine so we feel better.
posted by mkb at 9:45 AM on April 8, 2009


Homeopathy apologists are in part right - the treatment may produce results, but those are due to the placebo effect. Just because something's a placebo doesn't mean that it doesn't work. Even if a religion is the equivalent of placebo (contains no facts), it can still work. That's the crazy bit.
posted by echo target at 9:48 AM on April 8, 2009


Well, here’s the thing – assuming you’re using it in addition to rather than instead of conventional medicine Homeopathy is going to give the advantage of its Placebo effect, unless of course it’s been debunked for you in which case you won’t – who is actually better off here?

So moving on from that to seeing Religions as the social constructs they are – does that necessarily make you better off?
posted by Artw at 9:48 AM on April 8, 2009


(And that, to me, is a hell of a lot more interesting than a standard issue MeFi WAAARGH ATHEISTS discussion.)
posted by Artw at 9:51 AM on April 8, 2009


Who here actually knows about "prime causation"? Such arrogance.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:52 AM on April 8, 2009


Oh yes, let's all take happy medicine so we feel better.

You have some?
posted by adamdschneider at 9:58 AM on April 8, 2009


Well, here’s the thing – assuming you’re using it in addition to rather than instead of conventional medicine Homeopathy is going to give the advantage of its Placebo effect, unless of course it’s been debunked for you in which case you won’t – who is actually better off here?

What we need is a way to provoke the placebo effect in the absence of a placebo. It should be possible.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:00 AM on April 8, 2009


Chaos Magick!
posted by Artw at 10:01 AM on April 8, 2009


"Who here actually knows about "prime causation"? Such arrogance."

Burhanistan: If you're referring to the theological argument for God's necessary existence based on the logical need for some first cause to set the chain of events we see operating in the world in motion, save your contempt. I know about it, and I don't buy it.

A more sensible logical position is one that doesn't require any kind of magical beginning, like the Hindu/Buddhist view in which there is no prime causation, only an infinite chain of causality. No first cause, no need to invent a divine first cause (which, by definition, has to be an uncaused cause itself, and so, renders the original argument logically incoherent).

The Hindu Brahmins and Buddhist monks who thought about such topics long before any of the Abrahamic traditions appeared offered far more logically coherent and sophisticated arguments for their belief systems than any of the religions to come since.

/theological derail

posted by saulgoodman at 10:16 AM on April 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


So, no one's actually watched the video except Art, right?

Man, religious folks sure are dumb. They believe in phlogiston and there's no possible positions aside from strict materialism!

Am I doing this right?
posted by klangklangston at 10:21 AM on April 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'll own up to it; I haven't watched it yet, due to firewall restrictions at work. Normally it's against my policy to comment w/out at least viewing the main link. I just couldn't resist interloping when Burhanistan made his weirdly broad accusation of arrogance.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:27 AM on April 8, 2009


I know about it, and I don't buy it.

Have you seen Hatcher's argument for a first cause? It's fairly elegant and it doesn't resort to infinite regression.
posted by Krrrlson at 10:32 AM on April 8, 2009


Finally a SLYT I want to watch.
posted by Termite at 10:44 AM on April 8, 2009


All the snark bedamned. Jared Diamond is great.

I don't think we need a discussion of "is religion good or bad" because that's a pointless question (since obviously, religion in general has both good and bad aspects). However, as DU suggest, having pretty much an entire society acknowledge that the bulk of all religion is mythological and invented by humans for practical reasons would be a good thing. Such an acknowledgement doesn't preclude people from being religious, but it does keep society from doing/believing insane things in the name of religion.
posted by molecicco at 10:48 AM on April 8, 2009


Related post from long ago.
posted by homunculus at 10:59 AM on April 8, 2009


The existance of God or otherwise is actually pretty irrelevant to the discussion, since Religions evolve independently regardless (If your religion is the one that god actually directly created himself please just pretend that this is about all the other, false religions).
posted by Artw at 11:01 AM on April 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


(After 7 minutes) hmm... he's more of a square than I thought. This is not on the same level as Guns, germs and steel.
posted by Termite at 11:02 AM on April 8, 2009


Have you seen Hatcher's argument for a first cause? It's fairly elegant and it doesn't resort to infinite regression.

Doesn't it? It seems to me to just hand-wave the infinite regression problem away, largely by perpetrating a fairly obvious petitio principii: his postulates merely assume that the universe cannot be a self-caused complex system. I would argue that we simply do not know enough about the nature of the universe to say that this must be the case. Essentially he is saying: everything is either self-caused or other caused; I'll smuggle in the assumption that it's impossible for the universe to be self-caused as if it were self-evident and then be amazed when that leaves me with the only possible option of the universe being other-caused. By, as it happens, God.

But what is this "God"? By the terms of Hatcher's own theory it's hard to see how this "God" can be anything other than an unnameable, unknowable, unthinkable singularity. The one attribute this "God" could have is "universe-starter." Any of the other attributes typically ascribed to God by religious thinkers would seem to me to fall into the problem of "well, how were those qualities caused? Why can God create himself as a loving being but the universe not create itself as what we find it to be?" etc. etc. In other words, back comes infinite regress and the whole mess falls apart.

In the end his real claim is simply circular, is it not? "If the universe has a cause, it must have a cause." We can't settle the conditional part of that, and the consequent is banal.
posted by yoink at 11:22 AM on April 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


>(After 7 minutes) hmm... he's more of a square than I thought. This is not on the same level as Guns, germs and steel.

It's obvious that he's not really playing on his home turf; this lecture is rather banal, and unfortunately, unlike with GGS, he isn't drawing on any special knowledge, insight, physiological discoveries, or anthropological field research.

This is your Standard Professorial Loosening of the Tie Speech 101 on religion, society and the pragmatics of the relationship between the two.

(I suppose he does toss in a lot of references to New Guinea, following from his field work there, but the principles he extrapolates from this field work aren't too surprising.)
posted by darth_tedious at 11:26 AM on April 8, 2009


Have you seen Hatcher's argument for a first cause? It's fairly elegant and it doesn't resort to infinite regression.

I haven't seen the full argument, but just looking at the axioms he uses to make it, I can't see how they can be used to make an airtight case that his conclusions are the only necessary ones.

His first axiom allows for self-causation. Presumably, that's to allow his "universal uncaused cause" to cause itself (if that's not his argument, he's got even bigger problems). But if self-causation is allowed, why limit self-causation to a single, universal self-caused cause?

If the answer is some variation on "well, because it all had to start with something," then the argument is circular and assumes its own conclusion.

Otherwise, this axiom leaves open the possibility of infinite numbers of self-caused causes, whether just sitting around eternally causing things or winking into and out of existence just long enough to interact with other uncaused causes in ways that generate new chains of cause and effect. You could turn this into an argument for quantum fluctuations as the "primal cause." That's just my first stab at the argument, but it doesn't seem very convincing to me on this basis alone.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:29 AM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


(After 7 minutes) hmm... he's more of a square than I thought. This is not on the same level as Guns, germs and steel.

You can't win a Pulitzer for every class lecture.
posted by cmoj at 11:35 AM on April 8, 2009


[siderail] How does Hatcher's argument define God, exactly? Is there any explicit definition for "God" other than "the phenomenon that caused the universe to come into existence"? In which case, what the hell's the point? [/siderail]
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:52 AM on April 8, 2009


28 comments in and no one yet has mentioned that jacket? You're all way too highbrow.
posted by rusty at 12:29 PM on April 8, 2009


With the Hatcher argument you get Leibniz's God, a God so perfect that he doesn't even have to exist to be the cause of everything! The only way to salvage an argument that is falling into infinite regression is to make it circular. The intuitionists did it, emotivists have done it, and religions often do too; and they all feel suspiciously hollow.
posted by karmiolz at 12:29 PM on April 8, 2009


28 comments in and no one yet has mentioned that jacket?

I'd describe his look as "stretched Leprechaun".
posted by Artw at 12:48 PM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Religion and religious discussions are reminding me more and more of an old Woody Allen joke.
This guy goes to see a psychiatrist and says, "My brother thinks he's a chicken." The doctor says, "Then you should send your brother to me instead of coming here yourself." "I would doc, but we need the eggs."
Diamond discussed four societal functions the religions fulfill, but he left a a big one: meaning. Life in itself is meaningless and a comforting fairytale is helpful to a lot a people who can't accept a reality where bad guys win, where good people get hurt, where loved ones die forever.

Diamond noted that all societies have some kind of religion. I think that's because we need the eggs. It's all very well to say you don't need them, but many people are not strong enough emotionally or intellectually to live in the cold, clear light of perfect rationality. They prefer the possibly imaginary eggs because the comfort and aid the eggs provide is not imaginary.
posted by RussHy at 12:56 PM on April 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


Diamond discussed four societal functions the religions fulfill, but he left a a big one: meaning. Life in itself is meaningless [...]
Speak for yourself. Not religious. Life has meaning. I would rather find my own meaning, than have some priest tell me what God says it is.

[...] many people are not strong enough emotionally or intellectually to live in the cold, clear light of perfect rationality.
I hear this a lot. People say it like it's some obvious thing that needs no justification. It's definitely the case that many people find comfort in their religion, but it's mere speculation that they would be unable to cope if they were not religious. If this was true, one would would expect life-long atheists to have terrible coping skills. Is there any evidence of this? In my own, biased, opinion, that is not the case.

Also, atheists are not perfectly rational. Only the most bizarrely irrational atheist would claim they are. However, many of us aspire to greater rationality. It's like wanting to be healthy. Not binary: Olympic athlete or couch potato.
posted by Humanzee at 1:13 PM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


If this was true, one would would expect life-long atheists to have terrible coping skills.

I don't see how that follows. I don't mean to say anything at all about atheists. All I'm saying is that many people find tangible benefits from religion and that's why religions continue to flourish. Complaining because they don't make sense or are irrational is pointless, because they aren't going away. I say this as a completely unchurched non-Christian with reasonable coping skills.
posted by RussHy at 1:27 PM on April 8, 2009


Life in itself is meaningless and a comforting fairytale is helpful to a lot a people who can't accept a reality where bad guys win, where good people get hurt, where loved ones die forever.

But life isn't meaningless--it's meaning is self-generative. In fact, you devalue the meaning of life by looking to sources outside the world for its meaning (the easy example is the suicide bomber looking forward to the rewards of heaven as he walks into the crowded cafe, loaded down with explosives under his jacket). Meaning in life is found in observing the connections among different things, and in realizing how each connection of one thing to another is as perfect, and absolutely purposeful and meaningful as anyone could ask for.

Religious minded people seem to be seeking lots of different things in religion--an outlet for their persecution and revenge fantasies (messianic cults like the more end-times focused evangelical Christians), say; or a sense of being connected and prosperous members of a successful community (the big Wal-Mart style congregations with their fetishism of financial success); or someone who'll tell them their emergent schizo-paranoia doesn't mean they're crazy, it just means that they're becoming super human (Scientology).

In fact, religions are, IMO, at least in part a mechanism that allows us to sort through difficult psychological issues at a safe distance, by projecting them into various allegorical stories captured in sacred texts that are so open to interpretation we have to project our own meanings into them (or have them interpreted for us).

The desire to find absolute meaning in life--in other words, the compulsion to find some eternal, over-arching meaning to everything that never changes and that exists independently of the specific activities of life itself and whatever meanings life's activities have inherently in their everyday contexts--just happens to be one of the more common psychological problems. It's a problem because it gives rise to a form of longing that can never be satisfied because there is no one all-encompassing truth that everything in life can be reduced to. Some people find living with the degree of complexity this truth implies overwhelming, and so they turn to the more fundamentalist, literal-minded religious faiths.

Still others see the less dogmatic, self-reflective practice of a religious faith as a potentially valuable way to stimulate deep spiritual feelings and insights that transcend the personal.

With religion as with life, there's no one pat answer for what needs it fulfills.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:42 PM on April 8, 2009 [9 favorites]


With religion as with life, there's no one pat answer for what needs it fulfills.

Well said.
posted by RussHy at 1:51 PM on April 8, 2009


can i just ask: what accent does Prof. Diamond have? I've never heard anything like it...
posted by progosk at 2:17 PM on April 8, 2009


Hard to think that a man has much insight into human belief when he evidently thinks that combing some long strands of hair across his scalp will convince people he's not really bald.
posted by Phanx at 2:38 PM on April 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Boston via England and New Guinea.
posted by Artw at 2:51 PM on April 8, 2009


Thanks for posting. Enjoyed it.

David Brooks should have to sit through this lecture.
posted by inoculatedcities at 3:03 PM on April 8, 2009


Whether god exists is irrelevant to what he was talking about.

Regarding the question of religion giving meaning to people's lives, he talked about an explanatory role of religion. How different is an explanation from a meaning? I propose that meanings are emotionally satisfying explanations. When a student asked him in the Q+A afterward about this very issue, he said "I don't have an answer for this, I have not really considered it". There are many sources of shallow emotional contentment, religion is hardly necessary for this, though it fills the role well. As saulgoodman pointed out above, religion often robs life of meaning, by stressing the relative importance of an after-life, something outside lived experience that is described as more important, more meaningful, than any lived experience.
posted by idiopath at 5:01 PM on April 8, 2009


It's about time the memetics meme was taken out back and shot.

Hey, are you starting a meme there?

stretched Leprechaun

Band name ahoy!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:08 PM on April 8, 2009


but many people are not strong enough emotionally or intellectually to live in the cold, clear light of perfect rationality. .

Anyone who claims to have access to 'perfect rationality' is already suspect in my book for lack of maturity and self awareness.

In any case it's just another spin on, 'what works for me is best for everybody.'

The other version would go, 'many people are not strong enough to open themselves to the power of their feelings, creativity, and imagination, and the impact it can have on their one and only life on earth.'

Another thing - religion tends to be more popular with people who are farther away from temporal power. Often this gets spun as - the poor and ignorant need myths about the world to get through the day.

An alternative spin would be - atheism is for those who can't handle the cold, clear pain of oppression and poverty,' (and maybe want to have the comfort of convincing themselves that there's no 'cosmic' problem with the balance of power from which they're benefiting).

In my life there are both theists and atheists whose rationality (and integrity) I respect. Both theists and atheists whom I don't respect. Both theists and atheists who are happy and comfortable, and both theists and atheists who are uncomfortable. Do others really not find this to be the case?

Finally, and tentatively, if one is going to condemn religion, one might as well also condemn law. They're both complex, culturally dependent systems that come in a wide variety of forms, help society to organize itself, perpetrate justice and injustice, and affect the powerful/'faithless' differently from the powerless/'faithful.'
posted by Salamandrous at 6:35 AM on April 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


About nine minutes in, he points out that some religions are atheist and agnostic, which already puts him a few steps ahead of most of the criticisms of Dawkins and Hitchins.

No mention of memetics, (thank common sense for that.) Which to my ears puts him more in the tradition of sociology of Durkheim and Weber than Dawkins's rather foolish attempt to reduce everything to "mind viruses." Especially given his repeated focus on functions of religion.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:57 AM on April 9, 2009


Yeah, through the main lecture period, and he's not really pushing memetics, either by name or in concept.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:19 AM on April 9, 2009


Jared Diamond Sued by New Guinea Natives for Crimes of Anthropology
posted by homunculus at 12:09 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


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